Nara (Heijo-kyo) - The First International City in Japan

Archaeological Ruins of the Eighth Century Buddhist City

The Todaiji Temple complex in the city of Nara in Nara Prefecture, built in the year 743.
The Todaiji Temple complex in the city of Nara in Nara Prefecture, built in the year 743. Inside is Daibutsu, the world's largest gilded bronze Buddha (15 meters). Steven Rolland (c) 2005

The Japanese capital city of Nara (Heijo-kyo) was Japan's second capital city, between 710-784 AD. During that time the city grew into a large and international city, with a maximum population of between 50,000 and 200,000, or about half the size of Constantinople at that same time.

Nara city covered an area of about 25 square kilometers (~7 square miles), with a population density estimated between 2,000-8,000 people per sq km (or per about 247 acres).

Its layout was an irregular rectangle, based on the Chinese grid system of streets and avenues and modeled after the Tang Dynasty Chinese capital of Chang'an. At the north central part of the city was the Nara Palace, seat of the centralized local state government. During its heyday, foreign visitors poured into the city, including traders and Buddhist monks from China, Korea, India and Vietnam.

In 754, Emperor Shomu established Buddhism as the state religion in Nara, and many Buddhist temples were established during the Tenpyo period in Nara. The most famous is the Todaiji Temple, famous for a 15 meter tall gilt-bronze Buddha statue, the Nara Diabutsu.

Nara's Inscribed Tablets

A total of over 135,000 inscribed wooden tablets (mokkan) have been recovered from the excavations at Nara; they represent official documents, shipping labels, inventory tags, and other written documentation. The recovery of mokkan from various parts of the city have revealed volumes concerning the bureaucratic structure of the government and the day to day lives of the inhabitants.

Up until the early 1960s, the precincts of Nara Palace were understood from historical sources to be "eight cho square", cho being a measurement of approximately 109 m or 330 feet. The earliest extant plans of the palace grounds were from a 17th century guide book. Subsequent references to the palace continued to describe it as "eight cho square," up until the 1960s.

Over time, the expression came to mean "splendid estate and grounds".

Archaeology in Nara

One of the first surveys of Nara was in 1897, conducted by art historian and architect Sekino Tadashi (1867–1935) of Tokyo Imperial University. After World War II, the modern town of Nara expanded to include the vicinity of the Nara Palace; and since 1959, salvage archaeological excavations have taken place at the site almost constantly. During the early 1960s, a highway bypass was proposed for the main portion of the modern town of Nara, and the plans were drawn to avoid the palace, using its traditional description. Archaeological excavations at the site were conducted before the bypass was begun, and they determined that the site was not, in fact, eight cho square, but extended eastward at least another 200 meters (650 feet).

In this eastern portion of the main palace were the archaeological remains of a lovely ornamental garden and the Heijo Palace, or Mountain Plum Palace, residence of the crown prince. Despite some local pressure to build the bypass quickly, it was rerouted, delaying the construction by two years, but preserving in place one of Japan's national treasures.

Significance of Nara Heijo-kyo

The importance of Nara lies both in its meaning to the history of the first consolidation of the Japanese state, and the actions of the Japanese Diet to protect the cultural resources in preference to the speedy construction of a bypass for the use of present day people.

Development issues are with us today, and will always be with us, and it is decisions such as that made by the Japanese people that continue to provide support for the world's cultural resources.

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